The Sunset Limited Derails at SF Playhouse

Carl Lumbly as Black pushes the Bible at Charles Dean as White in Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited on Bill English's atmospheric set.

THE SUNSET LIMITED: A Novel in Dramatic Form by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Bill English. SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter Street #318, San Francisco, CA 94102.415.677.9596, fax 415.677.9597 or September 28 through November 6 2010.


SF Playhouse is legendary for taking on plays that have social relevance and often with hard-edged plots and characters that other local venues avoid. They are very successful and the production values are top notch. This time around their theme for the 2010-2011 season is “Why Theatre?” Many, or maybe I should say some, of the opening night audience were shaking their heads asking “Why this play?”

Once again, Bill English creates a great atmospheric set and directs superlative actors in this 100-minute two-hander. However, this time around, the magic is missing. The fault lies in the play by Cormac McCarty that is subtitled as a novel in dramatic form. There is the potential for drama but the pedestrian writing is reflected in the continual use of “May (or is it ‘can’) I ask you a question?” Then too only one of the characters is fully envisioned and the other is a sounding board for the incessant question and non-answers.

Probably as an attempt at universality, McCarthy’s two characters are called Black (Carl Lumbly) and White (Charles Dean). Black, an ex-convict who has “found Jesus” after a near death experience while in jail, has “saved” White from throwing himself in front of a subway train called “The Sunset Limited.” Black has taken White back to his ghetto apartment (once again English has outdone himself with the set design) praising the word of the Bible trying to bring White, whom he calls the Professor to Jesus. It is abundantly clear that White, an atheist, does (did) not want to be “saved” from his appointment with death nor to become one with Jesus. Their conversation becomes a philosophical debate with neither gaining an edge. There is an attempt at intellectualism with passing reference to Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Kafka thrown in with description of violence and screwed up family life. Where Black seems to have all the control, White’s convictions are very secure: “I yearn for the darkness, I pray for death. Real Death. If I thought that in death I would meet the people I’ve known in life I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate horror.” Essentially that is all the substance to this play.

Both actors are brilliant. Lumbly’s delivery of black lingo rings true and making the incessant questioning almost palatable and he remains a tower of strength until the final scene. Dean’s reticent professor remains quiet for two thirds of the play and does not have a chance to emote until 15 minutes before the play ends. In the meantime, his set mouth, facial expressions and body language are the signs of a true professional. When he does speak, his beliefs are expressed with authority. Both actors deserve nominations for a Bay Area Critics Circle Award.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of